February 27, 2019

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

There’s a vital holiday this week. Will you join in by tuning out?

Friday marks the 10th observance of the National Day of Unplugging. To celebrate, just switch off your phones, screens, gadgets and electronic thingamajigs from sundown on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday evening. I have to use my phone for an event during that time, but I’m planning to stay off social media. Why?

It’s good for your brain and body. A comprehensive study on social media’s effects found that immediate benefits of quitting Facebook include less partisanship, a slight increase in mood and life satisfaction and an extra hour a day. If you’re more of an Instagram fiend, you might see a decrease in anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, all of which were associated with the photo-sharing app in a study of teens and young adults from the United Kingdom.

Anecdotally, author and podcast host Srinivas Rao found fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, more progress on projects that matter, deeper interactions with friends and family and a new yardstick to measure life.

It keeps you away from some of the modern world’s most unsavory bits. Nick Confessore is an investigative reporter at The New York Times who has written about social media and data privacy. Since he started reporting on technology, he has deleted all Facebook-owned apps from his phone, partly because he doesn’t “find the Facebook experience all that engaging or fun” but also for security reasons. “I don’t want to risk that an app on my phone might be sending Facebook my location,” Confessore writes.

On the networks themselves, ill-intentioned knights of disinformation ranging from Macedonian teens to Russian operatives, from “patriotic” conspiracy theorists to modern day no-nothings all fight for attention by screaming loudly and often. It’s exhausting on a micro level and dangerous to societies on macro level.

It’s a good excuse to reevaluate your priorities. Everyone seems to be KonMari-ing their closets, cupboards and kitchens. Why wouldn’t you do the same in the digital world?

Last winter, I deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone. Shortly after, I realized that I had stopped mindlessly scrolling through them on my laptop, too. I picked up a few new hobbies, starting reading more and didn’t feel like I was missing out on everything, like I had expected to.

Don’t get me wrong, social networks still provide incredible services. Unlike the Times’ Confessore, I haven’t managed to delete them all of from my phone, either. Facebook’s Messenger and Local apps remain important for my social life and Instagram remains a fun place to keep up with friends. And I still use Twitter and Facebook all day for work.

But it’s time to be more mindful about what we’re willingly giving tech companies and what they’re taking from us. One day without them seems like a good start.

I’ll report back on how my digital diet goes and hope you’ll do the same.

FIELDS OF DREAMS: Articles that are more than 1,000 words are more likely to pull in big traffic on LinkedIn and Reddit. Shorter posts do better on Facebook, Instagram, SmartNews and others. Articles about the law, government and politics perform better than any other topic across almost all referrers (Pinterest, LinkedIn and Instagram are the exceptions). And, probably no surprise, mobile traffic is up again. Those are some of the findings in analytics firm Parse.ly’s latest news website traffic study, an invaluable resource about what online news consumers are up to.

WORM IN THE APPLE: Devices running iOS tend to be more secure than those running Android. That leads to two dangerous side effects: Apple users have lapsed into feeling a false sense of invulnerability, and malicious actors have grown crafty. Two new issues with iOS highlight both.

  • MacRumors reports that a feature in Safari that makes it easier for users to share portions of text with friends is vulnerable to manipulation. By typing into a search bar and sharing that text via Apple’s Messagers, users can add false or misleading information to the resulting share graphic.
  • The Verge reports that users who install an enterprise certificate to get access to a black market App Store (and illicit versions of paid apps like Spotify and Minecraft) could be handing over any and all of their personal data to malicious developers.

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME: Sometimes a site is down. Other times, it’s just “down.” Those of you who subscribe to a certain internet service provider that rhymes with “electrum” know what I’m talking about. Test out if a site is actually having problems or just a victim of a shoddy ISP with Down For Everyone Or Just Me.

EYE EXAM: In design, a single pixel can make a world of difference. But spotting such a pixel takes a trained eye. See if you have what it takes to be a pixel-perfect app designer with Can’t Unsee (I learned that not only do I not have that eye, I’m wondering if I need to pay my optometrist a visit).

  • Not everyone who reads this is a designer. But we’re all humans, right (I hope)? See if you can tell real photos of people from ones that have been generated by software with Which Face Is Real (yep, I’m definitely calling the eye doctor).

SHOP SCHOOL: My photographer colleagues have often complained about non-photographers refer to Photoshopping like it’s some sort of magic wand. “I know the picture is blurry, can’t you just Photoshop it?” “I cut out half her face, can you Photoshop it?” “My lens cap was on, can you fix it in Photoshop?” If you’ve ever wondered what you can and can’t do with Photoshop, start with PhlearnLLC’s YouTube tutorials channel. Just make sure to focus on the lessons about things like shortcuts, libraries and layers rather than scrubbing entire objects from photos or applying wild filters, which are almost always ethical lapses in journalism. If you’re not sure, ask a photojournalist.

NO, DUH: Ever say something that’s apparent to you that seems to be a breakthrough for someone else? Sometimes the obvious thing just needs to be said. This is especially true with technology and tools. We spend so much time using them that we forget how far we’ve come.

This morning, Poynter launched a project that explores the death of an American publishing powerhouse. The Rocky Mountain News closed a decade ago today, leaving behind a Denver Post that expanded to fill the hole left by the Rocky and then withered under hedge fund ownership.

It’s a fascinating story. And I’m not just saying that because I designed the page. I set up most of the design using elements from WPBakery, a robust page builder for WordPress.

I created an interactive that compares the Rocky’s very first front page with its last one using Knight Lab’s Juxtapose. Oh, and I crawled through a dusty storage room at Poynter in search of old Editor & Publisher International Yearbooks to find circulation numbers for the Rocky and the Post, which I added to a spreadsheet and used Infogram to chart out. It’s a reminder that sometimes the best tools aren’t digital at all.

I hope you’ll check out “10 Years Gone.”

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org. He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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